Why things become classics at the Bottle Inn[restaurant review]

Antonio Guadarrama with chocolate mousse cake, limoncello lemon cake, tiramisu, and cheesecake with white chocolate. Photo by Richard Foss.

The Bottle Inn in Hermosa makes old fashioned recipes with subtle modern touches, and it works

If you grew up in this area, you may not remember your first visit to the Bottle Inn. You were probably too young to drive, or to legally sample anything from the wine list, a kid dressed in nice clothes going out to dinner on mom, and dad’s anniversary, or a significant birthday. In the early days it was a “Continental” restaurant, serving American-Italian and pseudo-French dishes. Couples who had dated there, and returned for anniversaries saw a gradual shift toward more authentic classic Italian dishes. The cozy, dark restaurant continued in that vein for five decades, and if the place started looking a bit worn and dated toward the end of that time, the soft lighting and abundant wine made that easy to ignore.

In 2017 the restaurant changed hands, but not culinary style – a team led by Hilary Condren took the reins, and Oscar Arellano, who had been Maitre’d for over 20 years, stayed on as chef-partner. The restaurant did get a subtle but much-needed makeover that made the style more classic than rustic, and a new bar added liveliness to the front room. During the pandemic they made an arrangement with Martha’s across the street to use their outdoor patio, more than doubling the amount of outdoor seating, which has proved popular. That did raise a concern in my mind, though. Some restaurants that increase their seating start having problems with long delays, cold food, and other consequences. The kitchen at the Bottle Inn has always been small and oddly configured – could the culinary team deal with the challenge? In an environment where every restaurant is having trouble finding servers, would they have to rush diners, or have trouble getting all orders to a table at the same time?

The only way to know was to learn by experience. As nice as the outdoor seating looked, it was a hot evening and the air-conditioned interior was inviting. We were seated in the cozy, and relatively quiet alcove toward the rear of the restaurant. A server brought food, and wine menus, which were followed by garlic toast. Garlic toast as we know it is unheard of in Italy, but it is addictive and also filling, so I always have just one piece until other items arrive.

We ordered Caesar and quinoa salads as starters, along with an order of meatballs. The Bottle Inn is staying close to Italian tradition with these. Putting giant meatballs over spaghetti is a New York thing, but in Italy small meatballs topped with a little tomato sauce, and cheese is a popular starter. They’re made with a mix of beef and pork, and topped with mozzarella and Reggiano parmesan cheese, with a little crisped kale as a garnish. I’ve had meatballs in Sorrento that tasted very much like this, and will happily have them again any time.

The Caesar was the traditional item very well made, with a robust but balanced dressing, while the quinoa was a modern anomaly on an otherwise traditional menu. It’s not too different from Southern Italian salads that include grain along with greens, toasted almonds, and vinaigrette, but those don’t usually include roasted corn. The two new world grains fit in seamlessly with Italian tradition when it comes to flavor, and though innovation isn’t what the Bottle Inn is known for, this shows that they do it well.

With our starters we shared a bottle of Soave wine from a producer called Pieropan. Soave is a white made near Venice that has plenty of stone fruit and floral notes. It’s a fine summer cooler. It’s not a wine I usually order, but this bottle made me want to investigate the style further.

Though we contemplated the seafood and meat entrees, the three of us ordered pastas. Usually when I’m visiting a place with a review in mind I try to get as many different things as possible, but pastas are mainly what my companions visit the Bottle Inn for, and pastas they got. These were spaghetti carbonara, Linguine e polli al cartoccio, and “fesa di pollo,” a pounded chicken breast that is fried and then topped with angel hair pasta, garlic, tomato, and spinach. And yes, the fesa di pollo is listed in the chicken section of the menu, but the chicken is a platform for the pasta. The breading on the chicken was moist rather than crisp thanks to a garlic and herb sauce with broth, but the flavors were excellent together.

Entrees at the Bottle Inn, from top clockwise, foil wrapped flamed chicken pasta, fettuccini carbonara, chicken polenta lasagna, and fessa di pollo. Photo by Richard Foss

The carbonara was the real Italian version done right, with no cream, the richness of the sauce thanks to the raw egg yolk that is added into the pasta when it’s hot and briskly stirred with cheese, pepper, and pancetta. When done right it’s a triumph of letting ingredients speak for themselves, and it’s definitely right here. The linguine dish is much more complex, the pasta tossed with chicken, artichoke, spinach, mushrooms, chives, roasted garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes, then wrapped in aluminum foil and flamed with brandy at the table. Flaming anything with brandy isn’t about adding the alcohol flavor alone, or just for show. The liquor intensifies herbal flavors because the alcohol extracts them, and it adds a slight smoky sweetness. It wasn’t my favorite item at the table, but it was an interesting one that was worth trying.

Alexis Argueta applies flame to a foiled packet of linguine with brandy. Photo by Richard Foss

I decided to get the chicken polenta lasagna, an item from the Campania region around Naples. Polenta was historically the food of the very poor, and this may have been a way of substituting a cheap ingredient for more expensive grain. It works remarkably well because the thin sheets of corn dough have a sweet vegetable flavor that pairs well with fruity tomato sauce. The portion looks small but is quite filling, and I may have to try it a few more times to see whether I really do like it better than the wheat noodle version.

The Bottle Inn has won best wine list in our readers poll many times, and it’s not just because they have a lot of high-dollar Brunellos and similar library items. To complement our entrees, we chose an Otto Barbera’ d’Asti, a very good wine at a modest price point. It’s moderately tannic with plenty of fruit, a bit more deep, and complex than typical Chiantis. We were quite happy with it.

We knew we would be leaving with leftovers because the portions of pasta were very generous, but we had to try desserts. I surprised my wife by not getting cannoli, my usual favorite.. We ordered chocolate mousse cake, limoncello lemon cake, tiramisu, and cheesecake with white chocolate. My companions had ordered the cheesecake, and lemon cake, and I braced myself for overwhelming sweetness from both, but was surprised. The limoncello cake was citrusy but also had some flavor of lemon oil and peel to balance it, and while white chocolate isn’t a favorite flavor of mine, this cheesecake used it as well as I can remember. The chocolate cake would have been my favorite except that the tiramisu had the perfect balance of sweet cream cheese, bitter chocolate and coffee, and winey flavors. I’m picky about this dessert, and am completely satisfied with the Bottle Inn’s version.

Our meal was leisurely by design, but we experienced none of the problems that had concerned me on arrival. Everything was as well-made as ever and arrived hot, and servers took time with us as we ordered, and never appeared rushed. Our meal with three appetizers, four entrees, and two bottles of wine ran about $70 per person, modest for fine dining in a beachside landmark. Those who wondered whether the Bottle In was in good hands may relax and should return, because it’s everything you remember, but better.

The Bottle Inn is at 25 22nd Street, Hermosa. Open daily at 4 p.m., close 8:30 p.m. Sun. — Thurs., 9 p.m. Fri., Sat. Street parking only. Patio dining. Reservations recommended. Some vegetarian items. Full bar. Corkage $30. (310) 376-9595. TheBottleInnhermosa.com. ER  


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